A Stellar Interview on Fox News Sunday; Media Training and Execution at Its Best

I was highly impressed by the on-camera interview that Mark Parkinson, president and CEO of the American Health Care Association and the National Center for Assisted Living, did on May 24 with Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday. Excellent message discipline for the full eight minutes on live TV; showed compassion and didn’t diminish the impact of COVID-19 in nursing homes; superb bridging to points he wanted to make: “the good news is” …. “what we’ve learned”; countered a tough question on a GAO study by referencing another finding from the same study; buttressed his credibility in another answer by noting, “I’ve been a governor ….”

Kudos to the governor and those who prepped him.

You’re in a Political Candidate’s Crosshairs. Can You Respond?

Energy sector executives, government affairs representatives and communication leaders would be well advised to read this past Sunday’s business section article in The Washington Post headlined, “Trump, 2020 hopefuls are calling out U.S. firms.” It speaks to one of those sector-agnostic phenomena that is as relevant to one industry, and company, as the next. This phenomenon, as reported by The Post, centers on presidential candidates “directly challenging U.S. businesses in a way that historians and communication experts say underscores a new era.”

The practical takeaways relative to this development – which arguably is as applicable to state-level candidates as it is national ones – are twofold:

  1. It is essential to have at the ready a set of talking points that speak to the company’s mission and culture broadly, and other sets of talking points that speak to a company’s particular “hot button” issues and to major news developments that transcend different business sectors.
  2. It is useful as the election season intensifies to compile a record of relevant votes taken and/or statements made by political candidates relative to your company and industry.

With regard to talking points, it will be far easier to respond in real time to media inquiries and to craft appropriate tweets if one’s organization has kept current a general set of messages that align with its mission and brand. In this same vein, if the organization is siting or otherwise supporting development of an energy facility (think natural gas pipeline or wind farm, for example), one can anticipate that political candidates at one level or another are going to weigh in and necessitate something more than a “no comment.” The article in The Post includes good counsel from a communication expert who advises an organization that is attacked not to escalate the situation. Still, organizations fail to defend their reputation at their own peril.

Regular readers of The Washington Post witness a drumbeat of commentary criticizing Dominion Energy, much but not all of it from activists. If nothing else, the commentary is a barometer for impending criticism from political candidates. And beyond needing messages on issues unique to any given company, societal flash points like sexual harassment and the #MeToo movement, privacy, corporate salaries and “Buy American” are all worthy of a customized set of messages in their own right.

With regard to politicians’ voting records and statements, a compilation has value as a common reference point within an organization and as a resource for external stakeholders. In the face of criticism from a political candidate, it would be useful to know what if any pattern that candidate has from a voting or advocacy standpoint.

Developing materials and a range of messages like this can be tedious, but the time invested will be well worth it if and when an inquiry or criticism comes that requires quick response.




What to Do, and Not to Do, When Writing a News Release

Even in the digital age, news releases matter as a means of shaping and articulating key messages. And especially in the digital age, one could argue, message prioritization matters more than ever.

Not to pick on the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, but the March 14 news release on its latest Reliability Leadership Summit strikes me as a prime example of what NOT to do when writing a news release.

The lede (sic) states, in essence, “We had a meeting; X number of people attended; we talked about stuff.”

Accurate. Noteworthy. And not the message-centric construct that invites the reader to delve more deeply into the subject matter. For those who do, the news release’s second paragraph compounds the problem with a chronological listing of speakers. No driving of a specific theme; no identification of a major achievement; no highlighting of a key hurdle to overcome.

Deeper in the news release, we gain insight into one likely reason that it’s constructed as it is: there’s a bevy of meaty and complex topics on the table, including “current and emerging risks to the reliability and security of the grid; the rapid shift in generation resources; accelerated technology deployment; regulatory and policymaking in an era of unprecedented bulk power system change; reliably integrating record levels of renewable generation into electricity markets; and assuring adequate fuel supplies for power plants.”

I get that. Still, a key responsibility of the communicator drafting the news release is to sift through the complexity and find the theme or two that aligns with the organization’s brand (even when the organization is a not-for-profit regulator). That’s the information that needs to be in the lede. That can be a challenging task, particularly under a heavy work load and tight time constraints. In my view, however, it’s a must-do, not an option, to effectively enhance the organization’s reputation and provide journalists, if not others, with the substance on which you’d like them to focus.

In fairness to NERC, its Dec. 20, 2018 news release on the 2018 Long-Term Reliability Assessment is a better product. This Feb. 5th news release from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce similarly strikes me as one that effectively drives key messages.

Getting eyeballs on a news release is enough of a challenge these days, and a topic for another day. That makes it all the more important that the news release prioritizes information that actually makes it newsworthy.




Arizona Initiative Proponents Enlighten Us on the Happenstance of Palo Verde Operations

Silly old capricious Arizona Public Service. All this time it had most folks believing it was a serious-minded institution, an electric utility (with 6,400 employees no less) committed to responsibly meeting the needs of its customers and its parent company’s shareholders. Now, as the debate over a proposed ballot initiative intensifies, we’re learning that we’ve had it wrong. APS pretty much might do anything at any time, regardless of what balance sheets, economic modeling, grid analytics or any number of other business-related factors show.

Don’t take my word for it. The true, whimsical nature of APS’ mindset is revealed in last week’s Cronkite News reporting on the proposed Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona initiative that calls for 50 percent of the state’s electricity to come from renewable sources by 2030. Initiative proponent Rodd McLeod informs us via Cronkite that, “If the Palo Verde plant closes, it’s going to be because APS decides to close it.”

Palo Verde, of course, is the nation’s largest nuclear power plant, the one 50 miles west of Phoenix that has three reactors with a combined electric generating capacity of nearly 4,000 megawatts; the one that annually tops the nation in electricity production by power plants of any kind; and the one that historically achieves among the highest levels of reliability of power plants anywhere in the world.

We discover APS is capricious because McLeod pooh-poohs the utility’s warnings that a decision to close Palo Verde would result from the steepened renewable mandate that, in turn, would force a reduction in the plant’s output and make it uneconomic to operate.  “He was skeptical about APS’ argument that Palo Verde would no longer be economically viable, since utilities from other states own part of the plant,” Cronkite News reports.

Never mind that in neighboring California – which already happens to have a mandate requiring 50 percent renewable generation by 2030 – the upward ratcheting of the renewable portfolio standard was identified as a key driver behind Pacific Gas & Electric’s announcement in 2016 that the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant’s two reactors will be shuttered when their operating licenses expire in 2024 and 2025.

“California’s new energy policies will significantly reduce the need for Diablo Canyon’s electricity output,” PG&E explained at the time.

Well, maybe business principles and market dynamics matter in California, but apparently not in Arizona, certainly not to a utility as unpredictable as APS. No, “If the Palo Verde plant closes, it’s going to be because APS decides to close it.”

Little did we realize how remarkable it is that the Palo Verde station has remained in operation these many years, irrespective of its high capacity factors and carbon-free electricity generation, to cite just two attributes. It’s kismet, after all, plain old kismet that causes APS to keep its power flowing.




NFL Must Elevate Its Communications Game in Reply to Kaepernick Maelstrom

Before you watch NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell give bear hugs to first-round draft choices tonight at AT&T Stadium near Dallas, you may want to read this recent Washington Post article on the league. It provides a good contextual backdrop for the draft and, to me (a huge football fan and Green Bay Packers shareholder) underscores how woeful the league’s response has been to the series of controversies touched off by Colin Kaepernick’s social justice protests during the national anthem.

While one can’t accuse Goodell of being invisible, I can’t imagine former NBA Commissioner David Stern taking nearly as low a profile as Goodell has as events have unfolded the past two years. As the article points out (and wayyyy late in my opinion), the NFL in January launched a 10-member social justice committee. To the best of my knowledge, the NFL never made any attempt to directly engage with President Trump after he stirred the pot early last season; optically, if nothing else, that was a mistake in my view.

I’m hopeful that, as the new season dawns, we’ll see Goodell and the owners and players on the social justice committee (if not others) providing much greater transparency about the conversations and actions that can yield enduring positives from the confusion of the past two years. To date, the efforts to compartmentalize events – football games here; meetings and conversations over there – haven’t worked. Fans want to see exciting football, sure; they also want to feel they’re not being manipulated by owners and league officials who just want to keep a lid on things for the sake of revenues.

Millennials, Climate Change and Your Company’s Business and Policy Decisions

If you’re looking for insights into how millennials view climate change and – more to the point – how those views might factor into your company’s future policy positions and business decisions – this week offered a few good data points.

First, a survey released by the non-profit Alliance for Market Solutions in Washington, D.C., featured these two notable findings:

  • Nearly nine out of 10 millennials believe climate change is happening, and the vast majority of those believe that change is being driven by human activity.
  • Over 60 percent of young Republicans said they are concerned about air pollution, and over 50 percent say they are concerned about climate change.

Second, as reported by E&E News among others, a group of 22 college Republican clubs, six Democratic clubs and five nonpartisan collegiate environmental groups from across the country launched a national coalition called Students for Carbon Dividends (S4CD) “with the aim of bringing market-based climate change solutions to the forefront of the national debate.”

The new coalition articulates its Founding Statement as follows: “As young Republicans and Democrats with decades of life ahead, we believe that protecting our shared environment and mitigating the risks of climate instability is of paramount importance.”

The developments are interesting because we now have an entire generation of Americans for whom there is not (and never has been) a debate over the science of climate change. The view so often expressed by Sen. James Inhofe, for example – that there’s scientific disagreement over the extent to which humans contribute to an ever-changing climate – is as foreign to millennials as an eight-track audio cartridge. From the time they set foot in school, from their initial news consumption, their first exposure to movies, and their conversations with peers, the mantra of human-induced climate change has been a constant.

One of the obvious questions of this circumstance is: How quickly, to the extent it hasn’t already done so, will this dynamic influence policy positions and/or business decisions in the energy world? There’s a whole swath of states in the Southeast, for example, that do not have a renewable portfolio standard. While the focus of the Alliance for Market Solutions and Students for Carbon Dividends is a carbon tax, the views held by millennials on climate change could manifest themselves into policies or business decisions in any number of ways. Might we soon see more states in the South – with or without the support of electric utilities – enacting renewable or clean energy standards?

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee just threw in the towel in the state legislature on a proposed carbon tax. Is this a long-term setback for the concept or will it soon prove to be just a bump in the road?

Red states? Blue states? Will it matter as millennials come of age? A story just beginning to unfold.



March 2, 2018

New England’s “tenuous” ability to affordably and cleanly keep the lights on

To say that New England’s energy future is muddled is an understatement. Only 24 hours ago, during an annual press briefing, the president and CEO of regional grid operator ISO New England sounded a cautionary note about future energy supplies.

“As more oil, coal and nuclear plants seeks to retire in the coming years, keeping the lights on could become even more tenuous,” Gordon van Welie told reporters.

To put that statement in context, the region will have lost more than 4,600 megawatts of electric generating capacity between 2013 and 2021. That equates to about 16 percent of ISO New England’s current generating capacity. Several thousand more megawatts of generating capacity are deemed to be at risk.

It was just a few weeks ago that ISO New England released its Operational Fuel-Security Analysis, a study assessing whether possible future resource combinations would have enough fuel to ensure bulk power system reliability throughout an entire winter. “The results indicate that maintaining reliability is likely to become more challenging, especially if current power system trends continue,” the grid operator determined.

Meanwhile, efforts to improve New England’s energy infrastructure are meeting obstacles.

For example, the Northern Pass proposal, a 192-mile transmission line project to bring 1,090 megawatts of power from Hydro-Quebec’s hydroelectric plants in Canada to New Hampshire and the rest of the region, suffered a major setback on Feb. 1 when a state Site Evaluation Committee unanimously rejected the Northern Pass application. Northern Pass officials today are outlining conditions they believe could swing the Evaluation Committee in favor of the proposal, according to the New Hampshire Union Leader.

While the share of electricity New Englanders receive from renewable energy sources has increased in recent years (though most new generation has come from natural gas-fired power plants), the push to increase renewables significantly has hardly been a slam dunk. The organization Friends of Maine’s Mountains epitomizes the opposition that many wind projects encounter.

To observers outside New England, the region’s steps to address its energy challenges effectively will be at least a curiosity. To those within New England, particularly paying customers, there’s much more at stake.

Referencing the frigid temperatures that gripped much of the nation at the start of the new year, van Welie noted, “Wholesale electricity costs for that two-week cold spell total about $990 million, or about four times more than the $243 million incurred during the same two-week period last year.”

Call it the cost of muddling.



February 28, 2018

Is the solution to a California natural gas shortage doing away with natural gas?

If it weren’t for the fact that so many livelihoods, if not lives, are at stake, one would be tempted to smile at the sentiment expressed in a Los Angeles Times editorial a few days ago that lawmakers must do more, faster to “induc(e) consumers to shift from gas to electricity generated by renewable resources.” The Times’ prodding comes on the heels of a proposed moratorium by the California Public Utilities Commission on new gas hookups to commercial and industrial customers in parts of Los Angeles County through March. The proposal resulted from concerns about “adequate capacity in the system to meet foreseeable need,” according to the CPUC.

As context, natural gas plays a rather sizable role in California’s energy system and, thus, as an underpinning of the state’s economy. For example, it provides 50 percent of the in-state electricity generation and more than one-third of the state’s total power mix, according to the California Energy Commission.

One could hardly accuse California of not being aggressive in its determination to achieve a clean energy future. The state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard mandates that 50 percent of electricity retail sales be served by renewable resources by 2030, and a recent annual RPS reportfiled with the state legislature documents the impressive progress that’s been achieved to date.

Nonetheless, the Times appears insistent that, because there are concerns about a gas shortage, the solution is to … eliminate natural gas as a potential resource. Then Californians won’t have to worry whether there’s a gas “shortage” or not. To that point, an interesting article posted to the engadget website last month quotes California Gov. Jerry Brown at length on the ability of policy directives to drive technology advances. “We would have never gotten renewable energy prices where they are today without really ambitious public policy,” Brown says. Even Brown, however, suggests the next ambitious goal might be 80 percent renewables by 2050 — three decades away and hardly the pace that would placate the Times’ editorial board.

“If state lawmakers are serious about moving away from fossil fuels such as natural gas, and if local officials want a future without the risks that come with nearby gas storage wells, they can’t wait until the next crisis. They must take action now,” the Times opines.

Click your heels three times, Californians. Renewables nirvana is at your doorstep. The Los Angeles Times says so.



January 31, 2018

Infrastructure legislation offers ideal opportunity to improve electric grid resilience

Two times last week at notable forums in Washington, D.C., in the context of discussions about the electric grid, comments from top energy officials illustrated the unsettling lack of focus that exists with regard to the all-important subject of grid resilience.

First, at a Bipartisan Policy Center event, FERC Commissioner Cheryl LaFleur said, “How you make your system more resilient depends on what risk you’re mitigating against, and I think we’ll hear about different risks from different regions.”  Two days later, at the U.S. Energy Association’s State of the Energy Industry forum, American Public Power Association CEO Sue Kelly asked whether 2018 will be the year of resilience and said, according to an attendee’s tweet, “we need a common definition of resilience.”

These comments catch one’s attention because infrastructure legislation is coming. With no disrespect to the officials referenced above, who clearly are engaged on the issue, our nation can ill afford to miss this unique opportunity to better protect the electric grid while Washington works at Washington’s pace defining resilience.

In its 2017 report “Enhancing the Resilience of the Nation’s Electricity System,” the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine on page 10 provides a four-part definition of resilience: 1) preparing to make the system as robust as possible in the face of possible future stresses or attacks; 2) relying on resources to manage and ameliorate the consequences of an event once it has occurred; 3) recovering as quickly as possible once the event is over; and 4) remaining alert to insights and lessons that can be drawn (through all stages of the process) so that if and when another event occurs, a better job can be done in all stages.

The NAS resilience report also states that physical and cyber attacks pose “a serious and growing risk” to the electric grid, and last November the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security issued a joint technical alert confirming that many sectors within our nation’s critical infrastructure have been the targets of repeated cyber attacks. Similarly, DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, when asked how much confidence she has in the current system for protecting the grid, “(W)e need to continue to do more, we need to continue to update it and keep up with the threat, the threats continue to evolve,” as reported by E&E News.

Meanwhile, a version of the infrastructure funding principles leaked on Monday makes only one reference to electric and is void of electricity infrastructure provisions.

Our nation cannot afford the calamity of a large-area, long-duration power outage. Time is of the essence. For the well-being of the American people, we need to make meaningful progress on electric grid resilience now. Infrastructure legislation isn’t the entire answer by any means, but it certainly should be part of it.



January 25, 2018

A week to remember for natural gas lovers

“We have seen the future, and it is ours.”

If ever there were a week for natural gas proponents to utter these words, attributed to United Farm Workers leader Cesar Chavez three decades ago, this week might have been it.

Consider the week’s two major energy developments. Last Monday, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission terminated the Department of Energy’s notice of proposed rulemakingon grid reliability and resilience pricing. While FERC initiated a new proceeding that directs the operators of regional wholesale power markets to dive into the issue, its decision landed with a big, unwelcome thud at the doorstep of the coal and nuclear energy sectors. The National Mining Association and the Nuclear Energy Institute each issued statements expressing their disappointment.

Fast forward to Friday, when the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported upon the extent to which natural gas was used to help Americans cope with the bitterly cold weather that descended upon the nation to close out 2017 and open the new year.

“During the recent cold weather event that affected much of the eastern United States, more natural gas was withdrawn from storage fields around the country than at any other point in history,” EIA’s website states. “Net withdrawals from natural gas storage totaled 359 billion cubic feet (Bcf) for the week ending January 5, 2018, exceeding the previous record of 288 Bcf set four years ago.” Do the math, and that’s an eye-popping 25 percent increase over the prior record.

Sandwiched in between these two events was Tuesday’s “2018 State of American Energy” speechby the president and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute, Jack Gerard.

“Consider what was previously thought impossible. We’ve taken the nation from energy scarcity to energy abundance,” Gerard said. “Building a better future takes energy, and natural gas and oil are central to continued progress … (T)he natural gas, oil and refined products industry is focused on powering the future. The fact is we always have been, even if most didn’t know it.”

Strains of Cesar Chavez? Judge for yourself.



January 12, 2018